Wise speech is a prayer

My parents, now retired pastors, have been ordained many years in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada and the Polish Lutheran Church. My mother told me that not once in her long years of work did she choose to preach on the second lesson for this Sunday in Ordinary Time — the 18th Sunday after Pentecost — James 5:13-20. 

So, curious, I went back in my online archive of sermons to see if had. And to my surprise, I discovered that I now have preached two sermons in a row based on this text. The last time in the lectionary these texts appeared was three years ago in September 2012; and here we are three years later focusing on it again!

Why so? I asked myself. Many possible reasons likely. Not to mention the lectionary group here at Faith chose to reflect on James — yet again! Could it be, underlying this desire to look at James is the church’s need today for some practical advice about how to live the Christian life? Could it be, that the church today needs basic guidance about how to live as a Christian would in today’s world?

When we think of all that we say, all the airtime we populate with our words, how much of it would we consider ‘wise’? It is important to ask this, since one of the major concerns in the Book of James is our speech (Mark Douglas, Feasting on the Word Year B Vol 4, eds. Barbara Brown Taylor & David L Bartlett, WJK Press, 2009, p.112). And, it’s not so much what we say but how we say it — in the context of the relationships involved. This, indeed, requires great wisdom. So, I ask again, how much of what we say would we consider wise?

My guess is, not much. When we think of all that we say that is hypocrisy — that doesn’t really coincide with the choices we make, the lifestyles we lead. When we think of all that we say that only ends up hurting others …

When wise speech happens, it is truly a holy event. This is speech that communicates truth and honesty. This is speech that reveals vulnerability, expresses compassion, tenderness and authenticity. This is speech that is wise. And wise speech is then a prayer in God, with God, to God.

And, it is not only spoken to the ceiling. Because prayer is fundamentally a public act, not a private affair. One of the unfortunate victims of the Reformation period  — which launched the Enlightenment and Industrial and Scientific Revolutions of the modern era — was that Confession was relegated to a lower place in the value systems of religion. As a result of these modernizing developments which heightened the importance of the individual in religion, prayer was reduced and confined to words spoken to the air in our private lives.

In contrast, Confession is about speaking honestly the truth of our lives to another and with another. Confession is wise speech which brings healing and wholeness, when another ‘in the flesh’ can hear the truth and respond with guidance and in love, mercy and forgiveness.

And what we do every time we gather to worship, is pray. We pray in all the parts of the liturgy. Whether we are celebrating the sacrament of the table, whether we are listening to the sermon, whether we are singing a hymn or ‘saying’ a prayer — we are praying! Including the Confession of sins, and the pronouncement of forgiveness.

It is true — the church needs basic guidance about how to live as a Christian would in today’s world. I emphasize in today’s world because sometimes I don’t think we realize how decidedly unChristian this culture of ours is. And I don’t just mean the fact that we live in a multicultural, ethnically and religiously diverse society. But also, even in the institutional church, in our own lives, our lifestyles, our common sense assumptions about how to live our lives and the values we espouse: our attitudes towards competition, financial security, self-defence, self-righteousness, financial-material selfish gain, etc.

Perhaps it is time for the Reformation church (including Lutherans) to let go of the split we have created between grace and ‘works righteousness’. It is not all ‘cheap’ grace on the one hand; nor is it all work, on the other. In truth, it is a lot of work and practice to remain fully open to underserved and unmerited grace (Philippians 2:12-13). Because we will rush, if unawares, to make it all about our hard work. Just work harder!

At the same time, as Cynthia Bourgeault writes (in The Wisdom Way of Knowing: Reclaiming an Ancient Tradition to Awaken the Heart, Jossey Bass Publishing, 2003, p.10), “those willing to bear the wounds of intimacy, the knowledge of that underlying coherence – in which all things hold together – is possible.” To let go of the compulsions that keep us captive and stuck in patterns of life that are ungracious, untrue, unhealthy. To commit to the work and sacrifice of being true to self, true to neighbour and true to God. To practice confession and honesty with another. To accept the forgiveness, mercy and love of God and to receive it fully and know peace.

Could it be deep down we know it but are afraid to address and embrace it: the values of God in Christ Jesus are meaningful — they make for great, wordy and pious statements in church groups — yet clash with what we do and what we actually say to one another?

The Furious 7 movie which was Paul Walker’s last before he died shortly after filming the movie, ironically, in a car crash, highlighted for me this hypocrisy. In the extended version which I assume was edited after his death, there is a beautiful scene on the beach where Paul Walker’s character and family are gathered. His friends watch on as he plays with his young child and pregnant wife at the water’s edge. One of them remarks how what is truly important in life is not the thrill-seeking, high-octane, ego-satisfying selfish pursuits, but his relational world of love and family which endures forever. In contrast to the explosive, sensational content of the film up to that point, this affirmation of family living in love is rich in meaning and truth.

I commented in my slightly cynical mood after the movie that I didn’t think the Fast & the Furious franchise would have grossed the hundreds of millions it did if it made movies solely about family and love. It seems we want to acknowledge what is true and right, but only after we first can serve our own fixations and compulsions ‘for the thrill’.

Another TV example: Did you notice how the Amazing Race Canada presented the final words of the father and daughter from Africa — newly arrived immigrants, when they were eliminated before the final round? They were the victims of unfair play in that second-to-last leg of the race; other teams cheated on them by stealing their taxi not once but twice, if I remember correctly. 

And then, as the host John invited them for some closing remarks on the elimination mat, all of them spoke beautiful tear-wrenching words about the fair, generous nature of Canadians. It seems only the losers have something meaningful to say. Only when we suffer loss do we discover the truth of our lives. Now, we are getting uncomfortably closer to the whole point of our Christian faith and what it means to follow Jesus.

As I wrote three years ago, in James’ concluding chapter we encounter vivid images of prayer involving the laying on of hands and the anointing with oil. Prayer is a public act that invades the space of individuals and pulls us to be in the space of one another. Prayer is inherently relational. It gets down and dirty in the bodily reality of our lives, one with another. It is about touch and sensation as much as about the mere words we speak. Prayer is not my time, it is our time for the sake of the other.

Maybe I chose to preach on James 5 two times in a row because the Gospel associated with this text is about Jesus instructing us to cut out our eyes or chop off our hands if they caused us to sin (Mark 9:38-50). And I just didn’t want to go there! These are difficult words to ponder. Jesus concludes by using the image of salt to define the Christian life: something with an edge, that adds flavour. God forbid you lose your edge, your flavour! Jesus counsels us to have saltiness in our lives as a way to “be at peace with one another” (v.50).

Perhaps the way of Jesus will be tough and difficult building bridges of reconciliation. And yet, his last word to us today is a blessing of peace. The Book of James began with an address to those who are “dispersed” (1:1). James continues his letter to address the divisive consequences of an “unbridled tongue” (3:6ff) and considers the reasons for the “conflicts and disputes” among the people of God (3:4). James’ letter acknowledges the inherent splintering of our lives.

His letter in chapter 5, however, ends rather abruptly. Perhaps to indicate that there is no easy answer to the disconnections of our lives. Perhaps also to remind us that though wise speech is indeed a gift from God in the world so full of sin and death, we will still pray. And through prayer that is public, we will continue to engage the world in hope for a time when what has splintered can be reunited.

The life-giving gap

Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water?” (James 3:11)

The writer, James, makes a case for integrity and authenticity in the Christian life. For us moderns, living in a day and age where how we look, our reputations, our social standings and our bank accounts seem to speak louder than anything else about who we truly are and what we truly want. Is our joy at living based on these ‘worldly’ values, when we are honest about it? 

It becomes particularly challenging for us Christians, whose value system is acutely counter-cultural. It becomes a real war, actually, to embrace the true source of our lives in a world of celebrity politicians and glory-seeking suburbanites. And I think, for the most part, we live a bifurcated existence. We say one thing — I believe in the God who asks us to bear our cross and follow him (Mark 8:34) — but so easily slip into a lifestyle that is really narcissistic, self-centred and selfish. The easy way.

It’s a rhetorical question. “Does a spring pour forth both fresh and brackish water?” In James’ mind, of course not. A spring will either bring forth, on balance, mostly fresh or mostly dirty water. The meter will lean one way or the other. 

Which way do you lean? In your work? In the way you invest? In how you spend your money? In how you spend your free time? With whom? In what and how you communicate?

In the Gospel for today (Mark 8:27-38), Jesus says some difficult, counter-cultural things about what kind of way Jesus — the Lord of Lords, the King of Kings, God incarnate, Almighty and Everlasting God — will travel the journey of life. And it is this God who beckons us to follow: in order “to undergo great suffering” (Mark 8:31). Really? That doesn’t sound right for a person claiming godly power!

In an upwardly mobile culture we are suddenly and shockingly presented with a downwardly mobile God. Naturally and understandably, through the lens of worldly value, we shudder. Peter rebukes Jesus. And it is in response to Peter’s communication that Jesus accuses Peter of being Satan.

The first lesson from Isaiah, the third chapter in the Epistle James and the Gospel reading for today are a call to discipline our speech — how we talk, and for what purpose. I would broaden this to say: How we communicate. The words we use. The body language we employ. They say that 70% of communication is non-verbal. I believe this truth is what prompted Francis of Assisi to say: “Preach the Gospel; Use words only when necessary!” It’s a cliche, but it’s true: Our actions speak louder than words.

We are called to pay attention not only to the words we use — important though they are, but our actions, our tone, our presence with another. We are called to pay attention to these details in assessing the quality of our relationships. Not to do so, to ignore and dismiss our attention to these aspects of relating, is evil. Not to hold ourselves accountable to what we say and how we say it to another is a satanic time-bomb waiting to happen.

The eighth commandment reads: Do not bear false witness against your neighbour (Exodus 20, Deuteronomy 5). This means, what we say about them. Of course, first we have to look around and ask: Who is our neighbour? On Meadowlands Drive West, in Nepean, Ottawa, and in Canada. Who are our neighbours today? Do we know their names? Who are they? And then, what do we say about them, to them?

In his explanation of all the Ten Commandments, Martin Luther makes clear these are not simply about ‘not-doing’ — not gossiping, not slandering — but even more important what positive behaviour we do for the sake of the neighbour. He writes that it is imperative that Christians should do all they can to protect the good name and social standing of their neighbours — and he lifts up particularly the “sins of the tongue” in this context. (Martin Luther, “The Large Catechism,” in the Book of Concord, ed. Robert Kolb & Timothy Wengert, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000, p.420)

I can’t help here to think of the millions of refugees fleeing the violence in Syria. I can’t help here but think of the many ways Muslims are disparaged in the media in the West not only in the press, but also in those malicious forwarded emails that circulate “like a hydra with multiple heads: so pernicious and so difficult to stop” (Kristin Johnston Largen, “Inter-religious Learning and Teaching” Fortress Press, 2014, p.57).

James concedes to our human predicament. In the end, no matter how hard we try to do right by this, “no one can tame the tongue” (3:8). It’s as if the narrative of Scripture accepts the impossible capability of us, on our own, to get it all right all of the time. Even though Peter is in one moment ‘Satanic’ he is, in the next, the rock upon which the church will be built against whom “the gates of Hades will not prevail” (Matthew 16:18). Martin Luther’s well-known paradox can help us frame this apparent contradiction: We are simultaneously saints AND sinners (simul justus et pecator). 

This ‘word’ today may make us feel uncomfortable. It does, me. And, probably for good reason. Yet, there is good news. God speaks into this confused darkness of our lives. God speaks the Word of creation into this murky existence (Genesis 1). A Word of forgiveness, mercy and compassion. 

And the Word that God speaks sets up the endless harmonic of sounds in the world. And as we speak, and try to speak truthfully, perhaps what we are doing is far less hanging labels around the necks of the things of the world. And instead we try to find those divine harmonics and speak and act ‘in tune’ with that Word first spoken into silence and darkness.

The image I like of creation is that God first makes a great cave. And then breathes into it. Speaks into it. A Word. And from the cave the echoes come back. Differently pitched. Differently aimed. A world of Word. And we find our place in that world listening to those harmonics, trying to speak and act in tune with them. Not to speak and act from our will or our passion for control. But to speak because we want to join in what an earlier generation would have called the ‘music of the spheres’. (Rowan Williams, “The Spirit in the Desert” Meditatio Talk Series 2015 B Apr-June CD).

Those of us preachers and public speakers, especially need to think more about this. Paul says that the Body of Christ is made up of all parts, each important in their own right (1 Corinthians 12:12-27) — you are a hand, you a leg, you the eyes, you the foot. This morning, I am the mouth! And, like James, Paul also says that greater scrutiny and possible judgement will be brought upon those who speak (2 Peter 2:3;Colossians 2:20;1 Timothy 1:2-4). A timely word, perhaps, in a season of political campaign, mindless rhetoric and questionable election promises.

How do we speak in such a way that is authentic and true? Only by looking for the harmonics that that Word of God sets up. By refusing the mass pressures of culture. By becoming in our speaking as in our living a kind of invitation into the gracious harmonics of God’s world, into the resonances and echoes that are set up by that primordial utterance of God into the cave of creation.

Simone Weil used the concept of ‘hesitation’ to describe how to communicate in a healthy way For her, part of the essence of spiritual maturity was leaving the ‘life-giving gap’ between you, the act, and the other person (quoted in Rowan Williams, ibid.). Learning not so much to project straight away our ego compulsions into the other person; learning not so much to move right away into solving a problem on our own terms. But drawing away momentarily to listen for the sake of the other. And for the sake of the truth.

At the end of the day, we are called to check the compulsion to speak. And move back into a momentary stillness into which God’s draws us, and out of which God calls us to speak and to act with integrity and authenticity.

We would make James proud.